Article Published in The Waterbury (CT) Republican-American
Bilingual education reform has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing public policy movements. Last June, California voters approved an initiative pulling the plug on most of the state’s widely-criticized bilingual education programs. Since then, policymakers, educators and parents around the nation have initiated related efforts to help English learners in their own schools. Now a proposed bill in the Connecticut legislature suggests limiting the time students spend in bilingual programs and reexamining the standards they must meet to graduate into mainstream classrooms.
To date, Massachusetts, New York, Colorado, Illinois, Arizona, and even the U.S. House of Representatives have all taken significant steps to reform bilingual education programs. Such programs are currently employed in all 50 states. While the methods vary widely, nearly all rely on segregating English learners in classrooms where they are taught in their native language rather than in English.
More than half of English learners in Connecticut public schools, nearly 13,000 students, are in bilingual education programs. According to the state Department of Education, they remain in these programs for an average of 3« years. But in recent years there has been a reported drop in the number of these students graduating from bilingual into mainstream classrooms.
Advocates of the bilingual approach stress that children can learn English more effectively after they have already acquired fluency in their native language. As a result, students can remain in bilingual programs for up to seven or eight years. But children in these programs generally learn English slower, later, and less effectively than their peers.
Since California began implementing the new law, many schools which had relied on the bilingual approach for as long as 30 years are finding that the new English immersion approach is working. “In my opinion,” said one Los Angeles bilingual education coordinator, “our students are learning academic English faster than expected.”
With the bilingual education reform movement gaining momentum around the country, federal policymakers have sought to bring the issue to the national spotlight. “We need to do right by these kids and doing right means giving them what they need,” President Clinton said last year, “but not keeping them trapped in some sort of intellectual purgatory where they’ll get bored and drop out of school and won’t go forward.” Both President Clinton and Education Secretary Riley have said that three years in a specialized program is an appropriate maximum amount of time for students to acquire English fluency, but have thus far remained unwilling to officially support a three-year limit on funding for bilingual programs.
This year’s scheduled reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) presents Congress with a major opportunity to improve federal programs for English learners. ESEA must be renewed every five years; the Act governs most federal elementary and secondary education programs, including bilingual education.
Congress could use the ESEA reauthorization to improve the prospects for millions of English learners in schools across the nation by adding language to:
- Let parents choose how their own children learn English. Parents must be kept informed of their children’s progress, and school officials must be responsive to parents’ requests to remove children from bilingual programs.
- Limit the amount of time students spend in bilingual programs to three years or less.
- Terminate Compliance Agreements. By voiding the hundreds of cumbersome “compliance agreements” currently in place between local school districts and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the Congress would liberate districts to dedicate significant additional resources to teaching students English.
Last year the House of Representatives passed these measures in the “English Language Fluency Act,” but too late in the session to be considered by the Senate.
Perhaps the most significant reason bilingual education reform has progressed so rapidly in recent months is the increased involvement of many of the nation’s Hispanic leaders. As former Representative Herman Badillo, America’s first Hispanic Member of Congress, remarked last year, “To keep children in classes where their own native language is used in the hope that they will somehow make the transition to English after five or six years is unacceptable to us.”
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